Brexit scientific adviser still awaited

UK government gives 'non-committal' response to calls for researchers' voices to be heard

February 20, 2017

The government has not yet appointed a chief scientific adviser for Brexit despite MPs saying it should be a priority.

An inquiry into the effects of leaving the European Union on science late last year left MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee unconvinced that the needs of research are at the heart of the new Department for Exiting the EU’s plans.

They said that the UK’s “world-class” research base must be “heard at the negotiating table” and they urged DExEU to “hire a chief scientific adviser as a matter of priority”.

But DExEU has yet to appoint one, according to the government’s response to the inquiry. The report says it is still considering how to ensure that officials are accessing the best scientific advice from inside and outside government and that there are number of different ways of doing it.

DExEU are “continuing to work closely” with the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport to consider how the department accesses scientific advice, it adds.

Sir Mark’s views on research and Brexit have recently come under scrutiny after an academic at Imperial College London tweeted that he had heard Sir Mark was in favour of the UK leaving the EU’s multibillion research and innovation funding programme, Horizon 2020.

Whether scientists will continue to have access to EU funding programmes is a top concern for researchers. The Treasury has pledged to underwrite any projects awarded during Horizon 2020, but whether the UK will be able to bid for subsequent programmes is a subject for negotiation.

Sir Mark has also recently come under fire for his management of scientific advice across government.

The chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Stephen Metcalfe, wrote to Sir Mark earlier this month to express his concern over whether the Government Office for Science has a “comprehensive overview” of chief scientific advisers in each government department.

Sir Mark’s predecessor, Sir John Beddington, counted among his top three achievements as putting a chief scientific adviser in every major department of government. In his letter, Mr Metcalfe asks Sir Mark to assure him that Sir John’s legacy was being sustained and that the network of chief scientific advisers was still recognised as a “vital way” of making scientific advice available across government.

He adds that he is concerned about the length of time it takes to recruit new advisers.

Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics, and master of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, said that the tone of the whole response from government was “non-committal”.

“The [science] community may be pleased that science and innovation have featured strongly in recent statements by the prime minister, but there is little hard information about what will be done in the future once Article 50 is triggered and the real negotiations [on leaving the EU] begin,” she said.

The report adds that outside government, DExEU is continuing to consult with a wide range of universities and research institutions about the implications of Brexit.

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